2/9/14 – SURPASSING THE PHARISEES by Lynn Naeckel

EPIPHANY 5 A

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20

For several weeks now we will be hearing Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. If last week had not been the presentation of Jesus, we would have heard the Beatitudes. The reading for today immediately follows that.

Please notice especially, that unlike John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “I am the light. . .” in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “YOU are the light of the world. YOU are the salt of the earth.” This is not qualified; it is a statement of fact.

The commentators this week all talk about salt as a seasoning, something that adds zest. True, but we should also consider its use as a preservative. Back in the days before refrigeration, this was a common way of keeping food useable.

Even more interesting is a bit that I have preached before about how salt, cut in a large block, was used in the communal ovens of Jesus’s time. It acted as a catalyst, to make the fire of dung burn brighter and hotter. When it lost that ability, it was broken up and thrown out on the paths like gravel.

So if we are to be salt we are to act as seasoning, preservative, and a catalyst. As Amy Oden points out, “Neither salt nor light exists for themselves. They only fulfill their purpose when used…”

What Jesus means when he tells us, “You are the light of the world,” becomes clearer when we look at the Isaiah lesson. It begins with a discussion of fasting, contrasting fasting for form or influence with “true” fasting. Here’s how Isaiah defines true fasting: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke.. . to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them. . . Then your light shall break forth like the dawn. . .”

Your actions in the world are what make your light break forth. Your acts of justice, mercy, and compassion make your light shine – and by the way, also make the world around you a better place to live. To paraphrase David Lose, Jesus is not asking us to earn our salvation, but to live out the salvation and discipleship that has been given to us as a gift.

We are salt. We are light. If we put a bushel over our light, that is our choice, but the light itself is a gift of God, meant to be shared with others. It might be good to consider what bushels you or we as a congregation use to block the light. Individually, that bushel is often a sense of unworthiness, an inability to see our own gifts. As a congregation it might come, as Amy Oden suggests, from comparing what we are today to the good old days when our church was full of young families.

The Isaiah reading, after saying your light shall break forth, goes on to say this: “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” Carol Dempsey sees this as Isaiah redefining fasting and worship as a lived experience of being in right relationship with one another and with God rather than some sort of bribe or requirement to get what we want.

Andrew Connors agrees: “True fasting – and by extension, true worship—leads not simply to a reordering of the liturgy, but a reordering of the life of the community. . . What concerns God is not our reordering of worship, but how worship reorders us.” (Remember that old Episcopal statement: praying shapes believing)

Our reading from Matthew ends with these challenging words: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And this just after he has said “Do not think I have to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” So what does he mean?

We know that the Pharisees lived absolutely according to the law, keeping all the rules for righteousness. How can anyone exceed that? I found the answer in some comments by Marcia Riggs: “The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is concerned with observance of tradition, public displays of piety and adherence to the letter of the law. The righteousness of Jesus flows from his relationship with God and, in turn, is the ground of Jesus’s relationship with his followers.”

So, the Pharisees see righteousness as following the rules; Jesus sees it as being in right relationship with God and all of God’s creation. Following the rules flows from that relationship, as do our acts of justice, compassion, and mercy.

Another way of thinking about what Jesus says here comes to us from Edwin Van Driel: “The Pharisees read Torah in the context of a world governed by sin” (or hardheartedness). Jesus read Torah no longer in the context of sin, but in the context of the kingdom. Now that the reign of God is at hand the measure is no longer human weakness, but the abundance of God’s grace. Relationship between a person and God, and the relationship between humans, is now the basis of things – or the lens through which we are to read Scripture.

The followers of Jesus are thus both commanded and enabled to live their lives in ways that surpass the conventional obedience of the Pharisees. They do what they do, not to earn a place in heaven, nor to impress their neighbors, nor to win any favors from God, but rather as a response to the love and compassion they receive from God. Their behavior becomes a sign of their relationship with God.

Wow! When I was growing up, it seemed to me that being a Christian was all about obeying the rules – and all about salvation. But this understanding of what Jesus tells us, turns that around, not by abolishing the rules, but by pointing out that the relationship of a person to God and to other people is more important that the rules; that we do not need to be concerned about salvation, but focus on how we live our lives here. Are we helping to bring the kingdom into reality or not?

Living by rote is not what Jesus asks of us. He says we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He asks that we live our lives in relationship with God and our neighbors, and from that will flow actions that reflect God’s justice, mercy, and compassion. AMEN

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